Will crew chief Steve Letarte be able to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in victory lane at Talladega this Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 years? (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Australian Grand Prix puts ‘shoey’ can cooler up for sale to fans

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing performs a shoey to celebrate his win on the podium during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo brought “The Shoey” to Formula 1 last year on a few podiums, including his only win of the year at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The concept is an interesting one – you’re drinking out of a sweaty race boot after a full day’s work.

Ricciardo did his first one himself at the German Grand Prix, his 100th Grand Prix, while he also got his Australian countryman Mark Webber (Spa) and English actor Gerard Butler (Austin) to get in on the act.

Luckily, good on Ricciardo’s home country as the Australian Grand Prix has actually created a ‘Shoey’ can cooler – available mid-March for 15 Australian dollars. The Australian Grand Prix is on NBCSN on March 26, to kick off the 2017 season.

Thanks to the Australian Grand Prix and freelance journalist Josh Kruse for the spot.

This is a brilliant piece of merchandise that cashes in on Ricciardo’s success and his celebration style, but allows for all the fun of a “Shoey” without the consequences of drinking out of a race boot.

Looks like shots in the grandstands of fans drinking from this type of boot may be something we need to look out for.

Juncos Racing enters IndyCar with a glittering MRTI resume

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Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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For years, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has long been considered a training ground for drivers, and some crew members, to prepare and develop before moving into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

It hasn’t, yet, seen a full team that began in the Road to Indy step up into IndyCar. But when Juncos Racing announced its intentions to build a new 40,000-square foot shop in Speedway, Ind., called the Juncos Technical Center, it was always part of the longer-term plan that an IndyCar team would eventually be part of the program. It has now arrived with an entry into the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017.

Ricardo Juncos’ team last major step from Pro Mazda into Indy Lights in 2015 produced better results than even he had imagined, as Spencer Pigot won the championship in the team’s first year.

“We got a good opportunity when we won the Pro Mazda championship with Spencer,” Juncos told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday.” The original idea before ’14 was try to fight for that championship. If we were able to win it, that we have a good chance to put together an Indy Lights team, which we did.

“But to be honest, we just showed up in 2015 taking a very difficult championship with a top-class worldwide teams with ex-Formula 1 drivers in the series (Max Chilton, and later Nelson Piquet Jr. at Carlin). It was very difficult. Our first initial thinking was, Let’s do our best, we were joking if we could win a race, that would be great. We ended up winning six races and a championship. Of course, that give us a lot of confidence.

“The continuation of the team was exactly what we was kind of did before in the Pro Mazda. Obviously that, like you said, one is coming from go-kart before then, then Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights was a lot of questions. Winning the championship give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“So I’m seeing this Indy car more as a same thing, as a continuation of what we done. We just going to keep doing what we normally do.”

Juncos will continue in Indy Lights this year with at least two cars (Kyle Kaiser, Nico Dapero), but has no immediate plans to return to Pro Mazda having sold off his equipment there. The USF2000 championship, meanwhile, introduces a new Tatuus USF-17 chassis this year which can be adapted for Pro Mazda use (Tatuus PM-18) starting in 2018, with a few part changeovers.

“To be honest, we actually are not going to run the Pro Mazda this year. Unfortunately after being eight years with four cars, we cannot do it. We going to focus obviously on Indy Lights, Indy car now, and some other stuff,” he said.

“Going into ’18, we’ll see. The problem is that as much as I want to have, is not that easy to just keep building teams. I want to do things right and control the things, which sometimes is difficult.”

So who is Juncos Racing and what have they accomplished in the Mazda Road to Indy? It’d be easier to work backwards and note the alumni of drivers who’ve delivered success for the team:

2016: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires (Kyle Kaiser, Zachary Claman De Melo) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (Garett Grist, Will Owen, Nico Dapero, Jake Parsons). Kaiser won twice and finished third in the Indy Lights standings, while Dapero scored his maiden win in Pro Mazda at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale.

2015: Indy Lights (Spencer Pigot, Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Owen, Grist, Timothe Buret, Jose Gutierrez). Pigot won the championship in the team’s step back up to Indy Lights with six race wins, in three weekend sweeps. Grist (twice) and Buret (once) won in Pro Mazda and Grist finished third in points.

2014: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Kaiser, Pigot, Julia Ballario). Pigot won the title with six wins, having survived an insane weekend battling Scott Hargrove for the title at Sonoma. Kaiser and Gutierrez won the two races that weekend and finished sixth and seventh in points.

2013: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Ballario, Scott Anderson, Diego Ferreira). Ferreira won the season opener and finished second in points, with Anderson fifth. Andretti’s Matt Brabham dominated the season.

2012: Star Mazda (Ferreira, Connor De Phillippi, Bruno Palli, Martin Scuncio). De Phillippi won twice, Scuncio once as De Phillippi came fourth in points in a deep field. He’s now gone onto success in sports car racing with Porsche and more recently Audi. The team also made its Indy Lights debut with Chase Austin, JV Horto and Bruno Palli in selected races.

2011: Star Mazda (Horto, Scuncio, Tatiana Calderon, Gustavo Menezes, Richard Heistand). Horto led the way there with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and fourth in points. Calderon and Menezes have eventually gone onto success in Europe, Menezes in particular given his run in LMP2 with the Signatech Alpine team last year where he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the class championship.

2010: Star Mazda (Scuncio, Calderon, Conor Daly, Sean Bursytn, Rusty Mitchell, Hayden Duerson). Juncos’ most successful year prior to 2014 saw Daly win seven of 13 races, en route to the championship by 79 points over Anders Krohn, who’s since developed his own post-driving career in both broadcasting and driver and business development at CoForce.

2009: Star Mazda (Daly, Peter Dempsey). In Juncos’ first year in Star Mazda, Dempsey won five races and Daly one, but Dempsey endured a tough loss for the championship in the final race after being taken out by competitor Joel Miller. This opened the door for Adam Christodoulou to snatch that year’s Star Mazda title.

Haas F1 Team gives us the sound of 2017 Ferrari (VIDEO)

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 17:  Romain Grosjean of France drives the  Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo as he exits the pit lane during day one of Formula One testing at Circuit de Catalunya on May 17, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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You’ve heard from the other power units competing in 2017 – Renault and Honda both revealed their sounds earlier this month, and Mercedes did too prior to that.

But the 2017 Ferrari hasn’t been heard yet. Until today, in two guises.

Earlier this afternoon, Sauber ran its C36 chassis with a Ferrari power unit on track at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona as part of a filming day.

Meanwhile Haas F1 Team, the other privateer team using a Ferrari power unit, released a teaser video as it fired up the engine to its VF17 chassis for the first time. Haas launches its 2017 car on Sunday.

Follow @TonyDiZinno

F1 Paddock Pass: Force India VJM10 Launch (VIDEO)

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In the second edition of this week’s F1 on NBC Sports original digital series Paddock Pass, the Sahara Force India team reveals the VJM10 at the Silverstone Circuit in England, not far from the team’s headquarters.

Force India’s steady climb up the ladder has seen them rise to fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, achieved last year.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, the latter of whom shifts to Force India after an impressive half season with Manor last year.

“It just looks amazing. It’s the first time I’ve been so excited looking at the car,” Perez told Buxton. “We have to adapt to a new driving style and see how physically demanding it is. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Otmar Szafnauer, COO of Sahara Force India, also offered his thoughts and expectations:

“The only way to hope to keep (the momentum) was to develop the 2017 car early. We don’t have the resources for parallel development,” Szafnauer told Buxton.

Stay tuned to the end of the video for a potential nugget about the testing lineup.

A link to Renault’s Paddock Pass from yesterday is here.

Further preseason content will come this week and into next on NBCSports.com.